Friday, September 15, 2006

The Pope on Harnack and the New Testament -- and Muslims

Pope Benedict's recent speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany (September 12), a celebration of the role played by logos as reason in theology, has some interesting remarks about "dehellenization" in the history of Christianity, which I draw to your attention lest you missed them in the current fracas surrounding other parts of the speech. Quoting from a (not great) English translation on The Guardian:
The liberal theology of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ushered in a second stage in the process of dehellenization, with Adolf von Harnack as its outstanding representative. When I was a student, and in the early years of my teaching, this programme was highly influential in Catholic theology too. It took as its point of departure Pascal's distinction between the God of the philosophers and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In my inaugural lecture at Bonn in 1959, I tried to address the issue, and I do not intend to repeat here what I said on that occasion, but I would like to describe at least briefly what was new about this second stage of dehellenization.

Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message, underneath the accretions of theology and indeed of hellenization: this simple message was seen as the culmination of the religious development of humanity. Jesus was said to have put an end to worship in favour of morality. In the end he was presented as the father of a humanitarian moral message.

Fundamentally, Harnack's goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ's divinity and the triune God. In this sense, historical-critical exegesis of the New Testament, as he saw it, restored to theology its place within the university: theology, for Harnack, is something essentially historical and therefore strictly scientific.

What it is able to say critically about Jesus is, so to speak, an expression of practical reason and consequently it can take its rightful place within the university . . . .

. . . . Before I draw the conclusions to which all this has been leading, I must briefly refer to the third stage of dehellenization, which is now in progress. In the light of our experience with cultural pluralism, it is often said nowadays that the synthesis with Hellenism achieved in the early Church was a preliminary inculturation which ought not to be binding on other cultures.

The latter are said to have the right to return to the simple message of the New Testament prior to that inculturation, in order to inculturate it anew in their own particular milieux. This thesis is not only false; it is coarse and lacking in precision. The New Testament was written in Greek and bears the imprint of the Greek spirit, which had already come to maturity as the Old Testament developed. True, there are elements in the evolution of the early Church which do not have to be integrated into all cultures. Nonetheless, the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself . . . .
The speech, especially in translation, does not make easy reading, and I have gone over it several times. How far those gathered would have been able to pick up some of the finer nuances, I'm not sure. What does seem clear is that the media could and should be reporting this speech more responsibly. I am neither a Catholic nor a Muslim, but it is clear that the remarks that are now being widely quoted function in the context of the speech in a way that is not being reported accurately. Most media sources (e.g. today's BBC One O'Clock news, which I often catch while eating my breakfast here) are able to see that when talking about violence, the Pope was quoting Manuel II Paleologus (described as "the erudite Byzantine emperor", late 14th century), but what is more important is that the remarks are quoted in order to get to what in fact is the theme of the whole speech, Faith, Reason and the University,
The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.
Nevertheless, I can't help thinking that a little extra caution might have been useful given the brief nature of the quotation and discussion of Manuel II Paleologus. I am not an expert on Islam, but I would be troubled by the implication that some might take that Islam does not embrace reason, especially here:
But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury [editor of the Manuel II Paleologus dialogue in question, MSG] quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
This is where, I think, some additional clarity and sensitivity might make a useful contribution. And on the other side, those who are overreacting to the speech might well wish to demonstrate the importance of reason in their thinking by engaging it rather than caricaturing it.


Anonymous said...

"Harnack's central idea was to return simply to the man Jesus and to his simple message" - We need more of this. Jesus' message about the soon coming, literal, physical, political coming Kingdom is so simple - even Harnack destroyed it when he declares Jesus a moral teacher.

Anonymous said...

That is because the Popes comments simply imply that Protestants are turning away from the reason that is inherent to God; where in regard to Islam the Pope suggest that it is inherently illogical and hence Godless. The worst part his whole argument being that it is based on a quote of propaganda from the time of the Crusades; that quote falsely claims that Islam commands Muslims to spread their faith 'by the sword', while you simply won't find no such command to quote within the text of the Koran. The Pope quite simply built his argument off a putrid red herring and tried to pass it off as reason.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Anon: The pope didn't base his argument on the part of the text that was irrelevant to his point, so it's a little strange to call it a red herring. He was trying to be historically accurate to the view he was quoting, so he put it in its full context with all the irrelevant issues that were in the original context. But he never asserted any view about Islam, never mind claiming that it used the sword to spread religion.

What he did was point out that a debate was occurring in the medieval time over whether God is subject to reason or over it, and the players in the debate are irrelevant to his point. He wants to be clear that the idea of a rational God is not merely a Greek philosophical idea. He used this medieval debate as a place where this was being discussed long before the Enlightenment, but it was this emperor's view of God and reason that he was citing favorably, and his comments that he was saying his views too strongly and so on show that he wasn't entirely happy with everything he was saying aside from that main point.

Anonymous said...

For some reason, the Pope's speech is not being viewed very objectively. I might wish it were! First he makes a polite joke about atheists, how they are a little puzzled by his eminent University, how it has two faculties for something that never exists: God.
Then he jokes about a Byzantine Emperor, how harshly he speaks, "makes an astoundingly harsh statemnent."
HH Benedict XVI is walking on egg shells, but the Muslims aren't critiqued, an Emperor and his ideas are.
Here is a suggestion: the Greek nation should riot and say their King is being slandered. In addition, Regensberg should pass a law that no Pope can ever come within its municipality because all Popes are slanderous Italians.
While we are busy enjoying ourselves doing that, let's read the text and see whether the Pope hurt anyone. Like Pilate, I find no crime in him.